messiah that, josephus!

December 12, 2004

Josephus has been a friend, of sorts, of Christians for centuries. His historical writings of first century Judea have provided us a wealth of information to help us frame the world in which Jesus did his ministry, and even to confirm some of the events mentioned in the Gospels.

A year or so ago, I ran across something about Josephus that is not quite so popular with Christians. Josephus also believed that the Jewish Messiah had appeared in the first century, but he didn’t believe it was Jesus. He believed that the Roman emperor Vespasian was the messiah that the Jews had longed to see for so long. Of course, the fact that Josephus was essentially on the payroll of Titus, the son of Vespasian and the Roman emperor who followed him, might have had a bit to do with his conclusion.

Now, as we approach the Christmas season, some study I’ve done on the Christmas story has recalled some of those thoughts about Josephus’ unconventional thinking. I’ll bring it all back, I promise, but let me go off on a bit of a tangent…

First of all, take a look at the following quote. This was an inscription dated 9BCE that was written about Augustus, who was Caesar at the time (I’ve bolded a few things for emphasis):

The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura;…All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year…Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and [whereas,] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who proceeded him…and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].

This was common language about the caesars, and certainly was not exclusive to this one inscription. That alone might mess with your brain some, but now consider what Luke wrote about the Christmas story in Luke 2 (again, I’ve bolded some things for emphasis):

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Much of what Luke has to say about the birth of Jesus is the exact same kind of language that was used to describe Augustus and the later Caesars! (There is so much more that could be developed regarding some of the parallels of Jesus’ birth and those of the Caesars, but I’ll spare you before I completely lose your interest.) Often, when this passage is taught, much is made of the Jewish prophecies that are aluded to within it. Those are significant, but as we can see, there is not only Jewish language used in this story, but also language that would have been significant to all those in the Roman world.

Now, back to Josephus. Many scholars date the writing of Luke’s gospel, which he was writing to the Roman world, in the late 70s or early 80s. This is also the same timeframe Josephus would have made his claim that Vespasian (who was already dead by the way) was the Messiah. Could it be that Luke was aware of what Josephus had written and is clearly trying to point out that the one true Messiah had already been born decades ago, and continued to rule his new kingdom even then?

Perhaps someone can shoot down my hypothesis about Josephus and Luke. Or perhaps someone else had already made this claim and, in my ignorance, I just haven’t read it. Ultimately, none of that matters, but here is what does: There is one true King and Caesar who was born into this world, and we still celebrate his birth as truly good news! I pray that, during this Christmas season, you will remember the one true Savior has come, and celebrate life within His Kingdom.

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